Samantha Kirby




In Ha Seong-nan’s gripping and courageous Flowers of Mold, the author triple-underlines those distasteful aspects of our lives that we’d rather ignore: the putridity of leaky trash; the greasy, lingering smell of fried chicken; children’s crackers crushed underfoot; the solid clunk of an alarm clock to the jaw. Her characters are working-class people: pear farmers, car salesmen, electricians, sushi chefs, pre-pubescent gymnasts—whose everyday lives flout mundanity by revealing just how commonplace accidents, violence, and pain truly are. And yet, these stories conserve a thread of improbability in their sheer unpredictability, in the unsettling treachery of having another question your reality for you. In “The Woman Next Door,” a housewife is slowly displaced by a sinister newcomer; in “Nightmare,” a young girl’s waking horror is written off as nothing but a dream; and in “Onion,” a woman commits the unthinkable, yet, as she runs, can find no evidence of her crime.

Recycled in the stories in Flowers of Mold are the unbearable summer heat, the shocking discovering that fish have tongues, an old security guard, the life cycle of a billboard—lending Ha’s stories a feeling of simultaneity that makes them spill across each other, coexisting but never meeting. Ha is a master of the short story and hooks the reader without revealing or resolving too much too cleanly. Translator Janet Hong is built of the same stuff, handling Ha’s stories with a delicacy and attention to detail that should serve as a model for all in the profession.

Open Letter.

—Review by Samantha Kirby




In her mind, teenaged Crystal is unparalleled; she gets the grades, works the system, has no one and needs no one—except Mina. But when a friend’s suicide leaves Mina heartbroken, she begins to pull away from Crystal, who observes her mourning with a perplexing detachment. As Crystal wrestles with both her own isolation and the violent impulses that emerge in the wake of Mina’s withdrawal, disturbing reveries and half-finished thoughts flicker and flare in her consciousness before erupting in one startling, obsessive line: “The problem is: there are too many people who ought to be killed.”

Mina’s translators, Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, masterfully capture Crystal’s manic voice, navigating long, suspenseful dialogues between the two girls in which Crystal’s lines are cardiograms, spasming between threat and apology, threat and apology, as arrhythmic and untrustworthy as a palpitation:


Even as Crystal’s actions become more and more volatile, she remains resolutely, alarmingly, in control of herself, her future, her way of life. In this tense, slow-burning novel, Kim Sagwa hacks into the egocentric complexities of adolescence to criticize a monolithic and unsympathetic collectivist tradition. “If you want to win,” Crystal asserts, speaking for a society that is greater than and beyond her, “you need to be illogical, powerful, and destructive, and the more of each the better.” With Mina, Kim has created a compelling narrative of mental degradation, flaying both Crystal’s ego and a culture at large to reveal the often disturbing complexes found therein.

Two Lines Press.

— Review by Samantha Kirby




Nathacha Appanah’s Waiting for Tomorrow is a meditation on how otherness and selfhood are shaped by the dull pressures of time and society. The novel follows Adam, an old-fashioned architect from the French provinces, and Anita, an ambitious writer from Mauritius who “bridles at the prospect of becoming a woman like so many others.” The couple eventually settles in Adam’s hometown, and for a time Adam thrives in this traditional space while Anita is haunted by her aborted writing career, feeling lost in her own foreignness and her newfound motherhood. Both she and Adam find solace in their au pair Adèle, an undocumented immigrant who is fleeing a past marred by personal tragedy. Through these complex and portentous relationships, Appanah depicts a domestic landscape in which sacrifice is primarily female and foreign, sensed but not understood by the men in the novel.

The novel ends in high drama—with lives cut short and dreams unfulfilled, with Appanah making it painfully apparent that life is little more than a collector’s inventory, a long list of choices and consequences that live on in our memories despite our best efforts to forget. Waiting for Tomorrow aches with longing, either to fulfill one’s destiny or to “rummage about…to seize and root out the tiny…stubborn and vital spark” of survival, a demonstrative reminder that for many, “tomorrow” is simply a euphemism for non-arrival.

Graywolf Press.

—Review by Samantha Kirby




In The Natashas, Yelena Moskovich embarks on a jarring exploration of the inseparability of name and identity. The plot centers around Parisian jazz singer, Béatrice, and aspiring actor, César, who spend their lives haunted by nicknames, watching as their own fates are borne out on other people’s tongues. At the same time, Béatrice’s sister meows in conversation as her boyfriend’s “kitty cat,” and a woman named Sabine spends her entire life vehemently instructing others to call her “anything but that.” And then of course are the ever-present Natashas, those who have been stripped of age, interiority, and potential, whose name serves as a reminder that society exerts a control over its members even as they fight to create themselves. “Whether she is Pavla or Olena or Salomeya, to the customers, her name is Natasha.”

Moskovich’s imagery in the novel is hypnotizing; blankets on the floor are “bunched like spat-out gum,” cigarette smoke “crashes like watercolor” against a wall, a man’s voice is “as soft as a boiled fish,” and a question can seem “a room full of empty shoes.” The text stacks its scenes like building blocks, creating a mosaic of surrealist serendipity in which everything you think you know dissolves, again and again. Likewise, the characters live an “inter-frequency existence,” caught in the static between two channels, privy only to snatches and symbols as these realities bleed and swerve. The Natashas presents a Murakami-esque pictogram of incomplete data that will mesmerize the reader long after the last page has been turned.

Dzanc Books.

—Review by Samantha Kirby